Africa Summit explores new Silicon Savannah

With a burgeoning consumer market and the fastest economic growth of any world region in the last 10 years, Africa could be poised to see the next hot startup scene thrive in one of its major cities. This week at the Bloomberg Africa Business and Economic Summit a panel of the region’s foremost thinkers discussed four ways a new Silicon Savannah could be created:

1. Drive scale and inspiration. M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based money transfer service, is the darling of the Kenyan startup story. But apart from solar-power company M-Kopa Solar, there isn’t much else on the horizon that has the ability to scale, said Joseph Mucheru, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, Republic of Kenya.


Solar-power company M-Kopa Solar is a growing African startup. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

To inspire the country’s large young population, Kenya must nurture and showcase successful homegrown companies. Doing so will inspire new businesses, especially in next-generation technology.

2. Encourage the return of the diaspora. Countries across Africa can do more to encourage those abroad to return, bringing their expertise in science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) home with them.

Mucheru cited the nascent Kenyan space programme in Malindi, which is being nurtured as an innovation hub and was previously the site of a NASA base. Projects such as South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project create the next generation of scientists, breed technology startups and lead to innovation, he said.

3. Create skills at home. Dr. Michel Bézy, a distinguished professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Engineering & Public Policy, said there are major concerns over both the quality and quantity of universities across the continent.

It will take 55 years to produce the 1 million engineers the continent needs today, he says – by which time the requirement will no doubt have quadrupled. Plus, African countries must shift their industry focus to get ahead in tech.


“If we want to leapfrog, we really need to understand the world of robotics, autonomous systems, machine learning, deep learning… All of those things are what is going to transform our continent,” said Dr. Solomon Assefa, Director IBM Research South Africa, IBM.

“The key is to understand industry trends, the next set of technologies, and then multinationals and startups work with universities to develop the right and appropriate courses,” he said.

4. Work together as a continent. Want innovation in Africa? Start pooling resources.

“There is no way each country in Africa can do this on its own for the next five to 10 years because there is not enough critical mass. Africa is going to need to come together to put that together to create ecosystem,” Bézy said.

“There is no way you can develop a solution for Africa out of Silicon Valley. It’s impossible.” 

But as long as there are challenges, there are opportunities. Assefa points to agriculture, air quality and healthcare as areas where innovation can take place to solve real problems people in Africa – and elsewhere – are facing.

“There is no way you can develop a solution for Africa out of Silicon Valley. It’s impossible. Solutions for Africa have to be developed in Africa, by Africans for Africa.”

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